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So What Do You Do, Charlie Collier, AMC Vice President and General Manager?

How he's bringing quality television to the masses

- September 24, 2008
Charlie Collier wants you to know AMC is not your father's cable movie network. These days the former all-movies, all-the-time network is riding high. With Mad Men's groundbreaking Emmy win for best drama and the top prize for a dramatic actor going to the star of its other critically acclaimed series (Bryan Cranston for Breaking Bad), the network lead the way for last Sunday night's cable coronation.

AMC's wins in those categories are, in fact, quite significant. Gone are the days when the most buzzed-about projects were confined to premium cable -- and the excuse echoed by most broadcast execs that without advertisers, cablers could push the envelope with more provocative offerings. AMC, with Collier as part of the brain trust, has quietly -- and pointedly -- proven the old axiom wrong. Both of their original scripted series -- in their freshman year, no less -- have managed to steal plenty of thunder from the networks and premium cablers. With cinematic production values and sharp writing, AMC has proven less is definitely more. "The overall mission is to make sure we do quality before [we] focus on quantity," says Collier.

At a time when broadcast networks are still struggling to recover from the crippling writer's strike and trying to stave off the continuing onslaught of reality television by employing the spaghetti-at-the-wall strategy to see what sticks, Collier explains how AMC's vision for bringing quality television to the masses one show at time has helped make the once sleepy network a serious Hollywood player. This father of four ("my greatest success") who spends his two-hour commute from Darien, Connecticut watching screeners every day, weighs in on the importance of on-screen cool and why, when he's interviewing executives, only grown-ups need apply.

Name: Charlie Collier
Position: Executive vice president and general manager, AMC
Resume: Joined AMC in 2006 in his current position from Court TV, where he worked for four years and served as executive vice president and general manager of advertising sales. Did a two year stint (2000-2002) at Oxygen; at A&E/History Channel from 1994 until 1999.
Birthdate: August 23, 1969
Hometown: Millwood, New York
Education: Bucknell, BA; Columbia, MBA
Marital status: Married to Kristen; four children "A three-year-old, a five-year-old and two 10-year-olds."
First section of the Sunday Times: "Week in Review. It's a good place to ground yourself on a Sunday. Then I move to Business and Sports."
Favorite television show not on AMC: SportsCenter
Guilty pleasure: Movies
Last book read: "Meditations in an Emergency. I understand how smart Matt Weiner is now."

Congratulations on winning the Emmy for best drama. Besides earning AMC some pretty serious bragging rights, what else does it do?
I think it validates our strategy. It certainly is historic. No cable show has ever won best drama at the Emmys, so when they joke 'It's an honor to be nominated' -- it truly was for us, and it was historic to be there. I think it's another supporting factor in the evolution of cable. We're thrilled to lead the way.

There are so many sectors of our business -- particularly the media and fashion crowds -- that have embraced Mad Men. It's really become something of an obsession among the Michael's crowd. Jerry Della Femina told me a few weeks ago that it's made advertising cool again. Michael Kors' fall show was an homage to the show. How does it feel to be embraced by the cool crowd?
That's what so amazing about this program. It's struck a pop cultural chord in general, and then pockets like fashion have really taken to the show on a whole new level that I haven't seen on other shows I've been a part of here or on other networks. It really has struck a chord that's very personal depending on how you approach it.

Before we launched, Jerry Della Femina did a panel for us at Michael's. When he was talking about the way it was then he said, "Whatever you think is untrue (as seen in the pilot), it was actually that and more." He said when he used to work on a cigarette account, the chairman and CEO would get there early and comb through the ashtrays with their hands to make sure the butts were their brand. Then you look at the detail that Matt and the cast and crew has brought to this show, and they really have made it seem like time travel."

"We looked at how we could take the best of the most widely distributed movie network in the country and build originals that could stand with them seamlessly."

What are you doing to capitalize on all this media attention? Was there some thought by the brain trust to leverage that by incorporating the show into the current 'cool' commercials for the network that are running now?
The 'Long Live Cool' campaign was part of something we've done for the last couple of years to reposition the network. We looked at what we had in the movie library, and we thought the one thing in the movies we focus on -- and that promo spot is a perfect example -- is that they have a quality of enduring cool. It can be defined in different ways. There are three or four spots with that line that ended with 'Long Live Cool.' The range goes from The Godfather to Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson in Starsky & Hutch. What was amazing was that it was pointing out the enduring cool of a line or a specific scene. How that translates to something like Mad Men, in moving towards originals, was we looked at how we could take the best of what is the most widely distributed movie network in the country and build originals that could stand with them seamlessly. It's funny that you would point out 'Long Live Cool,' because it was a promotion born out of the films but then transfers incredibly well to the originals.

How did Mad Men come to you?
Matt Weiner had written and used the pilot episode of Mad Men as his introduction to David Chase and The Sopranos. It was his writing sample. It was written eight years ago. Matt is a brilliant guy who has created this world that you can enter from so many different perspectives or just as someone looking for great entertainment. Here's this script and our development folks saw it, fell in love with it, and felt that it would meet the mission of what I said before, which is to place enduring high-quality movies next to series that have the same hallmarks. We shoot on film -- we want it to be like making a movie every week, and when you read something like Mad Men, it really is as well-written as any television any of us have ever seen. Our development group, my boss, Ed Carroll and his boss, Josh Sapan really bought in.

I spoke to January Jones (who plays Betty Draper on Mad Men) at the Peabody Awards and she joked that you all love the show so much that you'd go on making it even if no one was watching it. So far your ratings have been steadily climbing -- and winning the Emmy has got to help. Is there an expectation that the show will cross a certain threshold and will be considered a success out of the niche it currently occupies?
The ratings have been superb. By any metric -- versus last year's average, versus our typical prime time average, the ratings are up double and triple digits depending on which demo you look at. Compared to ourselves or even compared to high-end scripted originals on other networks, this has been such a broad-based success. In June, on the Third Avenue side of Bloomingdale's, every single window was an AMC-branded Mad Men window. It was spectacular. There was a pop cultural relevance and a way for us to leverage the AMC brand and the Mad Men brand and bring it to another level. The numerical success has been fantastic. One of the things that has been unsung about this show is how upscale it is.

The relationship with BMW seems perfect for the show and at the other end of the spectrum you've got Target -- an interesting mix of high-low marketing. Tell me how you went about selling the show. Is BMW still the lead sponsor?
There are multiple presenting sponsors of the show -- Target, BMW, Heineken and others. The answer is, we sold the show like making a movie every week -- high end, cinematic television. Obviously, having the first season under our belt and having the Golden Globe win and the Peabody and the Emmy nominations, it's been a mixture of us talking about the show and at the same time and fielding calls about the show where people are looking for interesting ways to work with AMC.

With Heineken being a sponsor, that begs the question -- was that product placement in episode eight (where Don Draper and his staff had to convince the suits at Heineken to go after the upscale housewife) a coincidence or a savvy cross-promotion?
We never dictate the storylines to Matt. Obviously, when you have a show about advertising, there are a lot of products in there. Heineken is a sponsor and we're happy when they cross over, but Matt has such a vision for this world and who will participate that it starts with Matt and his cast and crew.

So it wasn't a promotional thing like, 'We can work Heineken into the script?'
Matt has got a picture of what happens for each of these characters and what they'll consume and touch, so it all starts and finishes with Matt.

Maybe I'm used to watching it On Demand but last week it seemed like there were more commercials than before. True?
It's exactly the same as it's always been. We actually have one of the lowest levels of commercial clutter in commercial television.

Does the Mad Men demo differ from the overall demo of the network?
The reality is when you look at what we have as such a focused movie network, you really do have a unique situation. Unlike a network that runs strict programming Monday through Friday, we, by definition, have a different movie on every night of the week. We don't tell our viewers, 'Come back for the same thing at the same time all the time,' -- until scripted series Mad Men and Breaking Bad. That extends to our strategy. We actually ran with an ad sales strategy in the Upfronts to show people we can specifically target different audiences with the movies and as we know more and more about the film, we can speak to different demographics with the theory being that Clint Eastwood is going to treat you very differently than Angelina Jolie.

Look at what we used as a lead-in for the pilot episode of Mad Men -- the lead in was Goodfellas. The thought was, here is this iconic Scorsese film -- incredibly quotable about, loosely speaking, a group of men to whom the rules do not apply. Then, you take something like Mad Men, which again, loosely speaking, is about a group of men who think they're above the rules. With something like Breaking Bad, with a very different feel, we support that with a month of anti-hero films. That brought in a very different demographic. We're launching The Prisoner, a miniseries we're doing in June. If you know the original series, you can only imagine the films we're going to use to support that. It really does vary in terms of demographic what we're trying to accomplish with each film and scripted series.

With shows like Shootout and Mad Men, AMC seems to be is going for the media insider niche which has been heretofore untapped. Yes?
Films are at our core, so for us to have Peter Bart and Peter Guber, who are iconic in the industry and have access to information and talent in a way that few others do, is great. In a lot of ways, Shootout brings a level of credibility and insight that we think Matt Weiner and Vince Gilligan bring to our scripted series. What we're really trying to do is have movies at our core and support it with an unscripted series like Shootout and a special they might do for us that looks at the celebrity side of Toronto Film Festival to our scripted originals where people see it's like making a movie every week -- so they fit here under those auspices.

I read that your plan is to debut one new show and one miniseries a year. Are you on track for that?
In general. The overall mission is to make sure we do quality before focus on quantity. In January, we'll come out with Breaking Bad season two and then our next move will be to do a mini, The Prisoner with Ian McClellan and Jim Caviezel. We'll come back with Mad Men in third quarter.

When I spoke to Showtime's Matt Blank for this series, we discussed the role controversial content plays in building a successful cable show in terms of generating buzz. What do you think about that?
I think controversial is not word I would use. For me, it's about relevance and great storytelling. Our first foray into scripted originals was a Western, Broken Trail, in 2006. It was the highest rated movie of the year -- it was the highest rated show on cable. For two nights in row, we had roughly 10 million viewers who came back for a Western. We were able to make it incredibly relevant for the largest audience in cable television that year.

How much television do you watch and what do you watch?
I watch TV in different ways. My family is always amazed that I know what's on every channel. You mentioned Matt Blank -- I've watched all of his series and admire them. I watch all of the competition as a sampling. As a viewer, I start with sports. Also, fortunately because we're such an acquirer of content, we get a lot of screeners here. With a two-hour commute, I tend to watch something going in and coming out every day.

What qualities do you look for in an executive across the board when you're hiring?
I like adults. I've got enough kids at home. Someone who can step away from the problem and look at it from multiple perspectives. There's a great line in Mad Men when Duck Phillips says to Don, "There's different ways to look at the world than the way you do." I look for people who can see the world not just from the way they typically see it, but step back and look at it from different angles. I'm so proud of the staff for creating an environment where the best in our business are bringing their passion projects. More and more, we're seeing them first.

So with the street cred Mad Men has brought AMC, are you seeing an increase in pitches?
Absolutely. It's not just Mad Men. When you do close to 10 million people a night for a Western, you see a lot of Western pitches. You do something as high end and a period piece like Mad Men and you see every period piece ever written. Then you do this modern day anti-hero in Breaking Bad and all of a sudden, it's not just one thing you're seeing. People see that we want to do quality and let the creators' work show through.

What lessons did you learn early in your career that you still find relevant today?
Number one -- begin as you intend to proceed. It's something someone said to be when I was just starting out. She gave me my first management job at 24. She said, 'So many people are trying to fit some mold instead of doing what they think is right from the start.'

What do you consider your greatest success?
Four children and [marrying] my college sweetheart.

How would you say you've gotten to where you are?
I've had the good fortune to have worked for people who let me run and let me make some mistakes and allow me to recover. Ed Carroll and Josh [Sapan] hired a guy -- I had some success, but it was all on the business side -- we talked for several months about the vision I would bring in for the creative side. I just passed my two year anniversary and had a nice conversation with Ed. I think we've both gotten out of the relationship what we hoped for and then some going in. Really more than anything, I think it's been the support of some really good bosses along the way. I've benefited from people above me who've said, 'His resume says 'X,' but we'll give him a shot to do 'Y.'' I've been incredibly fortunate since my early 20s that that's been the case.

Do you have a motto?
Do the right thing even when no one is looking.

Diane Clehane is a contributing editor to FishbowlNY and TVNewser. She writes the ‘Lunch’ column.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

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